Monday, October 27, 2014

LOOKING UPSTREAM

Every morning, when I step outside the cottage for a closer look at the river, it's generally the upstream view that first garners my attention.

Why? What prompts such preferential behavior?

After all, I have a choice—upstream or downstream. Both directions afford similar, quarter-mile stretches to scan before the stream disappears from sight around a bend. And I'd be hard pressed to choose one setting over the other as being more visually interesting—or think it any more likely to be frequented by the usual array of birds and riverine critters I such delight in watching.

Moreover, I'm already facing downstream as I exit the door, which is located on the building's side end nearest the river. Before I can gaze all the way upstream, I must first take a couple of paces to the right and swing around the corner of the house. 

Yet when I go out, I'm nonetheless apt, initially, to do little more than give the downstream water a brief and passing glance—unless something interesting catches my eye.

Again…why? If the two river views are physically equal, photogenically comparable, and uniform in their potential attraction to wildlife, shouldn't my daily first views be fairly evenly divided?

Having mused over this seeming conundrum a while, I've come to suspect the answer lies tangled somewhere amid a murky mix of history, philosophy, and metaphor.

As a lifelong stream fisherman who's cast his flies and ultralight lures on creeks, rivers, and purling brooks all over North America, and who admittedly seldom met a piece of running water he didn't long to explore—from ultimate merging with other waters to birthing source as a bubbling spring or mountain rill—I've almost always done my angling and investigating in an upstream direction. I'm doubtless programmed by personal history to gravitate to the upstream view.

Philosophically, in spite of my regular whining, I'm more optimist than pessimist, a glass-is-half-full fellow who tries to look ahead. The upstream view is, in physical fact, an early look at whatever is traveling along with the flow. Bobbing and swirling in the eddies. Slowing through the pools. Sparkling as it tumbles and chatters down the riffles. Moving water, heading my way, bringing all sorts of interesting gifts.  

And finally, moving waters all possess an honest and beautiful capacity, metaphorically, for poignantly illustrating and illuminating that restless earthly passage we call our life. I hope a day's first look is made upstream because the joy I find in being blessed with another morning somehow sparks the courage to face my immediate future.                   

Monday, October 6, 2014

FALLING & FLOATING LEAVES

There's an old country saying that "seasons go floating downstream." That's certainly the case for autumn, or at least the early, multicolored leaf portion, as anyone who lives beside a Midwestern creek or river can readily attest.

While our annual patchwork pageantry presentation of changing leaves has only recently begun—I don't expect our local color peak to occur for at least a couple more weeks—many leaves have already done their thing, flown their colors, and subsequently losened their grip on limb and twig. All it takes is a little puff of wind to bring them spinning down…or sometimes no wind at all.

That's now starting to happen here along the river, though the number of leaves on the water varies. Yesterday the channel exiting the pool in front of the cottage was fairly full; today, there's hardly a leaf to be seen. The difference? Wind. Yesterday was gusty, bringing down lots of ready-to-fall leaves. Today is damp, cloudy, but calm…not many leaves are being displaced from the trees.

However, these are early days so far as leaf fall is concerned. In the days and weeks to come, the number of leaves coming down will increase dramatically, until finally almost every tree in the woods and along the banks of the river will be stripped bare. Only the occasional stubborn oak will hang onto their now-brown leaves—many of which will remain on the tree until the start of spring's new growth. 

Of course, not all the leaves from the trees in my yard fall into the river. Not even all the leaves on the dozen or so big sycamores which lean over the dark, moving currents like thoughtful white-robed druids peering into a magic pool. As much as I appreciate the soil-enriching nutrients and moisture-holding fiber of the load after load after load of leaves which we rake up each autumn, heave into the wheelbarrow, and subsequently dump in great heaps onto the compost pile, I wouldn't be upset if a lot more of them took it upon themselves to find their way onto the water instead of my flower beds and struggling lawn. 

Still, I rather enjoy sweeping my way from the front door, across the deck, and along the graveled walkway—if for no other reason than it's good practice for winter's coming snows. Plus there are always countless "found" still life images to possibly photograph, or at least admire momentarily before I sweep them into oblivion. 
  

Friday, October 3, 2014

FIDDLER'S FINALE?

I awakened a bit past 2:00 a.m. this morning. Shoulders and forearms ached, my back throbbed, and my hands were swollen and stiff. All attributable to having spent part of yesterday in the self-abusing joy of maneuvering several ash logs around in order to saw them into 18-inch lengths so they can then be split into proper firewood. Some of these logs are 5 or 6 feet long, better than 20-inches in diameter, and hundreds of pounds in weight; heavy and recalcitrant.

The good news is my snazzy new chainsaw and cant hook both worked like champs, making the task easier—which is not to say easy. The bad news is I barely made a dent in the five truckloads of similar logs the tree-cutter has so far dumped in the parking area—with a sixth load yet to be delivered.

The conclusion I reached amid the pain and darkness was that while I may not survive to see the winter—if I do, I'll be toasty warm all the way to next spring.

After mulling this mixed thought awhile, I got up and shuffled into the front room, figuring to spend the remainder of the night in the recliner. Possibly a less horizontal repositioning would allow sleep. At least I wouldn't disturb Myladylove by tossing and turning. 

First, though, Moon-the-Dog, awakened by the room change and having followed my wandering, let me know she needed to have a few minutes outdoors. I went along.

The sky was overcast, intensifying the darkness. It was surprisingly warm—almost cloying. For a quarter hour I stood quite while Moon snuffled about the yard, stirring through the day's augmentation of new-fallen leaves. Off to my right the river purled softly along. And from all sides, a loud chorus of crickets and katydids, chirruped and whirred, buzzed and clicked. The seldom seen night fiddlers, those singing insects who so audibly define our summer evenings.

Alas, their days are numbered. Local weather forecasts are currently warning that tonight may drop as low as 37˚F. Not quite a killing frost night, but probably cold enough to thin the ranks of these nocturnal musicians. 

I'll miss them. And I can't help but wonder when the end will come for the fine little green meadow katydid I found sitting atop the handle of my mitre-box saw this weekend, and whose portrait heads this post.  

The katydid shot is one of only a few photos I've managed these past several weeks. And I've done even worse writing blog posts. Yet I kept meaning to do both.

Instead, I ("we" really, since the same holds true for Myladylove) have concentrated on trying to get as many "To Do" list tasks completed as possible before foul weather sets in—to the point that every spare minute has been commandeered. And now, of course, there's all that wood!

I may turn green myself…

Sunday, September 7, 2014

BACKYARD BLOOMS

Chicory, or blue sailor.

Jewelweed, or touch-me-not.

The images you see here were taken around the cottage, within a few hundred feet of the front door. None are what you'd call stunning, not even close. Just shots of common wildflowers—or in some cases, weeds, if you prefer—I liked well enough to keep. A sort of botanical/photographic version of "when you're not with the one you love…love the one you're with."

Alas, I've managed only a couple of very brief photo rambles lately—one to a favorite prairie where I'd hoped to photograph butterflies, various blooms, and maybe a few birds, and the other to a nearby pond for dragonflies. Both were total busts. 

Ironweed.
The 100-acre prairie—and another, slightly smaller prairie patch a few miles away—proved all but devoid of butterflies; I saw only one monarch and a rather bedraggled tiger swallowtail fluttering over the bluestem and coneflowers. Yet the morning was sunny, warm, and windless. To my way of thinking, there should have been dozens of different butterflies about busily nectaring.

Wingstem.
A few mornings later, the usually reliable pond turned out equally lacking in dragonflies. Normally, the airspace above the cattail fringes, boggy corners, and stands of marsh grass is working alive with these incredible aerial hunters, their whirring wings glittering, shimmering like jewels in the bright light. Again the day was sultry, sunlit, calm. What should have been perfect weather. But I saw no more than a handful of dragonflies, mostly blue dashers, during a full circuit of the 2-acre pond.

Self-heal, or heal-all.
What was going on? The only explanation I can think of would be the fact that until three or so weeks ago, our "summer" weather was more like mid-spring—daytime highs in the upper 60s˚F, nights low-50s˚. Not ideal butterfly or dragonfly weather. But that's only a guess. 

All I know is they weren't there…why remains a mystery.

  
      

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

UPS AND DOWNS

Summer has finally decided to act like summer here along the river, serving up southwestern-Ohio's usual seasonal fare of 90˚F heat and 90% humidity. Hot, sticky, and decidedly unpleasant. Coincidentally, work on the cottage's rooms redo has slowed considerably—though heat and personal lethargy are only partly to blame. Unexpected events have played their part.

"Life has its ups and downs," my Aunt Grace liked  to say. And so it does.

DOWN: About three weeks ago, during or just after a meal at a local restaurant, my cell phone disappeared. Lost? Stolen? I'm not sure. What I do know is that nowadays cell phones are more than mere convenient and unobtrusively portable electronic devices for making and receiving calls. They've become a key part of our daily routines—a depended-upon tool for doing everything from checking and sending e-mail and text messages, to keeping up on news, weather, and daily schedules. Plus much, much more!

Losing your phone is like losing a highly informed and dependably helpful assistant. You immediately feel violated, isolated, and handicapped, not to mention alarmed by those security issues which must be implemented ASAP, and thoroughly hacked off at the time, frustration, and dollars any fix is bound to entail. There's also the nagging suspicion your current situation is due, in very large part, to stupidity, senility, or negligence…possibly all three.

UP: I've replaced my iPhone 5 with the iPhone 5s, and dressed it out with a new protective case—both of which are even better than the versions they replaced.

DOWN: Just over two weeks ago, Moon-the-Dog suffered some sort of problem during the night, likely either a stroke or heart incident. I've watched and worried for some time as my beloved companion's health and energy gradually failed—and understood that inevitably, our time together was drawing to its mortal close. She is 16 years old. Time catches all of us in the end.

But such head knowledge does nothing to ease the pain and burden of your breaking heart. And awaking to see her in bad shape—hurting, dazed, frightened—was almost more than I could bear.

Love always comes with responsibility. Always. In making decisions for those we love, we want to do the right thing. To be compassionate, courageous, honorable. To avoid acting from a stance of selfishness and cowardice. But how to know which is which? My father used to tell me that whenever I was faced with multiple choices, I should always look closely at the most difficult one of the lot. "The hardest choice is usually the right one, Sonny," he'd say—advice I've found to be true time and time again. Making the right choice is sometimes so very, very hard it tears us apart. But our pain does not negate that moral obligation, love's responsibility.

Myladylove and I talked. And later that morning, I made the arrangements. Set an appointment that afternoon at a veterinarian's office just down the road. Called a friend to come over and help me make my precious old dog's final ride as easy and comfortable as possible.

But as we went out the door to his van, I had a change of heart. I simply couldn't do it, couldn't go through with what, by all signs, was the responsible thing to do.

Was I being selfish? Cowardly? Maybe. I honestly don't know. But it just didn't feel right. Not the right time. So ten minutes from that final irreversible act, I called the vet and told them I was canceling my appointment. At least for that day. Then I called Myladylove and said I'd decided to give Moon the night.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Yes," I said, "I am," because my sense of relief was far greater than any feelings of guilt. 

UP: We fed Moon by hand. She had real problems trying to get up. Walking was slow, shaky, obviously painful. She panted and gasped with every breath. But we've regularly coaxed, praised, and encouraged her out regularly to do her business. And though it's been slow, she's gradually improved. Almost miraculously so! She's now back to her old self, eating well, possibly walking and acting better than she has in a month. And I thank God I listened to that still, soft voice inside whispering to wait, to not give up, that time and season had not yet reached their end point.

At her age and given whatever occurred, I know this will only be a temporary reprieve. Time will eventually win. Today, tomorrow, next week, next month. But I'll take whatever extension we're granted…and I believe Moon will, too. Our reality is here and now. And words simply can't convey my heartfelt gratitude for such a blessing.
     

Friday, August 8, 2014

HOPE GROWS…

A couple of days ago I spotted a queen snake twined among the grapevines atop the rail of the narrow deck which overlooks the river. While some folks probably wouldn't view a snake on their porch with much joy, for me this was both a pleasure as well as a welcome bit of good news.

Queen snakes are small members of the water snake family, quite docile in nature, and similar in appearance to garter snakes, to which they're closely related. They feed almost exclusively on crayfish, and are found only along rocky or graveled-bottom streams boasting very clean water. So having queen snakes around means your river or creek is in good shape, waterwise. Alas, in some states, an ever-increasing lack of this necessary high-quality watershed habitat has now caused queen snakes to be added to their "threatened" or "endangered" species lists.

I feel honored to have these little snakes as fellow riverbank residents. Yet better still, soon after moving here, I realized the local queen snakes's winter hibernaculum was apparently within the jumble of limestone rocks upon which the cottage is built. I know this because come the first warm days of early spring, upwards of two dozen queen snakes of all sizes suddenly appear on this southwest-facing deck, basking in the sun of the burgeoning season. After a few weeks of this group sunning, they begin to disperse—though on any given morning throughout the summer I can usually spot two or three queens ensconced amid the now-leafed-out grapevine.

Like clockwork this spring, as the weather warmed back in April, they reappeared—a dozen queens, from small to large, reveling in the welcome sun. 

Then…disaster! A huge winter front moved in. Within a few hours, temperatures in the low-70s˚F plummeted to well below freezing. Plus rain, sleet, snow—followed by a hard, freeze-up which endured for several weeks. I worried about my resident queen snakes. Had they made it back to their shelter in time? Would the population be wiped out? And as the arctic weather continued to linger, the ground remaining hard as iron, would they be able to survive such a long and unseasonable turn-around?

I feared the worst. And I didn't see a queen snake again until a few weeks ago when I found a single, foot-long, pencil-thin individual atop the vine-shaded rail. I've spotted what I'm certain is the same small snake on two subsequent occasions. But the snake in the photo above is considerably larger—in fact, at something like two feet long, about as big as queen snakes get. 

So, two survivors. Not enough to keep a population viable, but enough to give me hope that maybe a few others also escaped the killing cold.   


Thursday, August 7, 2014

SUMMER? REALLY?

Ahh-h, summer. Those lazy, crazy, hazy days of sunshine and cicadas whirring amid yonder treetops, when sweet corn, half-runner beans, and genuine tomatoes grace the table…and come early morn, when only the foolhardy venture outside without first donning sufficient outerwear to ward off frostbite!

Yup. I've checked both calendar and almanac. It is indeed officially summer here in Ohio. Except it feels more like early spring or late winter. At least when I first get up. This morning the wall thermometer in the hallway read 60˚F! Brr-r-r-r-r! And that was the highest reading of any morning in several weeks. On more than one occasion the temperature has been as low as 51˚F! Cold enough to put frosting on your cornflakes!

Now I'm admittedly no lover of hot weather. Summer is usually my least favorite of the four seasons. But I do look forward to taking my mug of coffee and whatever I'm having for breakfast and enjoying my meal outside, on the deck, where I can bask in the rising sun, watch hummingbirds fuss over the bergamot, and listen to the nearby river murmur its way down the riffle. This is a wonderful time of day—the best time, I think, and certainly my favorite. A quiet, gentle period, filled with interesting sights and sounds and small dramas, yet sweet and relaxing—the perfect way to begin a new day.

Usually. But a summer morning loses much of its seasonal ambiance when you're bundled in multiple layers, still shivering, and trying to remember where you stored your gloves. Moreover, I've not yet heard a single ratchety cicada.   

How can you have a proper Buckeye summer without singing cicadas? And really, should parkas be de rigueur seasonal attire for summer in Ohio? I think not. And so, I make what, for me, is a heretofore unheard complaint: this summer is just too cold!